Bruce Jenner will appear Friday night on a highly anticipated ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, and many have speculated that Jenner will come out as transgender after months of frenzied media speculation. But whether Jenner comes out as transgender or "genderqueer," many millennials are likely to give it a collective shrug.
Once considered the epitome of conventional masculinity, the handsome track and field athlete won gold in the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics and has graced magazine covers and starred in television shows. But most media stories about the former athlete's gender identity have relied on anonymous sources, speculation, and paparazzi photos of Jenner in traditionally women's clothes and makeup to support the theory that the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” star, 65, is in the midst of gender transition.
"Who wore it best?" wrote the New York Daily News on Tuesday, featuring Jenner in a striped dress, drawing comparisons to stepdaughter Khloé Kardashian. Pictures of Jenner in a sports bra sparked speculation about breast implants. And in a new low even for tabloids, InTouch Weekly created a photoshopped cover image of Jenner with lipstick, makeup and long hair with the headline “Bruce’s Story: My Life as a Woman.”
"I’m astounded that Bonnie Fuller’s Hollywood Life would claim to have ‘all the details’ on Bruce Jenner’s ‘big magazine plans’ because their story is a total fabrication -- like InTouch’s distressing photoshopped cover," said Matthew Breen, editor in chief of The Advocate. "That anybody is still trying to 'shock' people about transgender people is really sad," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told the publication.
For transgender icon Kate Bornstein, author of "Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women And the Rest Of Us" (1995) who identifies neither as male or female, Jenner coming out as transgender might be less unsettling to people who see gender as binary (male and female) than if Jenner identifies as a man who likes to dress as a woman. And Bornstein reminds us that for many millennials, the idea that gender is on a spectrum rather the binary male/female -- a category called "genderqueer"-- is already part of the air they breathe.
Transgender's "Ellen" Moment?
When asked if Jenner's coming out as transgender (if that's what happens) would be as big a watershed moment as when Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay on "The Ellen Show" in 1996, Bornstein responded with a qualified yes.
"It’s definitely as big as when Ellen came out -- but Ellen came out as something quantifiable," Bornstein told International Business Times. "We know what a lesbian and gay person is. With Jenner, we don’t know. My guess is that Jenner is going to come out as transgender and say 'I am a woman. I’ve always felt I was a woman. I’m going to come out as a woman.' At which point things are going to die down. And it will be like Ellen. Now we can put it down and call Jenner 'she.' Ok, fine."
But in the meantime, says Bornstein, "We’re stepping all over their identity." (Bornstein refers to Jenner as "they" rather than "he" or "she.") "With Ellen, because we didn’t have to ask, ‘What is a gay person? What is a lesbian?’ We just knew. With Jenner, we just don’t know. We don’t know if Jenner might decide to be a very feminine man. It's unlikely, but no one’s considering that."
Millennials Reject Gender Norms
If Jenner "comes out" as a feminine man, the reality television star would be joining many genderqueer millennials, who polls and surveys indicate are not only LGBT-friendly but also see gender as a "performance" and on a spectrum rather than a binary identity.
In a recent NPR article titled "For These Millennials, Gender Norms Have Gone Out Of Style," it was reported that more than two-thirds of those between ages 14 and 34 agree that gender does not have to define a person the same way it used to, according to a 2013 study conducted by consumer insights company the Intelligence Group. And 6 in 10 participants said that men and women don't need to conform to traditional gender roles or behaviors anymore. Just think of straight celebrities like hipster heartthrob Jared Leto, who likes to wear skirts and have his hair in a bun, and Jaden Smith, who likes to wear traditionally feminine clothes.
In some ways, the tabloid-y responses to Jenner have revealed an anxiety about which kind of discrimination to deploy: misogyny? homophobia? transphobia? The indeterminate gender space Jenner has been in prior to tonight’s interview has been filled in by media speculation anxious for an answer.
"People are now saying, 'Gender doesn’t depend on genitalia,' " says Bornstein. "That's the big breakthrough with the transgender movement that we’re seeing now. Maybe genitals and hormones don't have anything to do with it. That’s a big step forward. But you’re still a man or you’re still a woman. Good thing you came that far," Bornstein says. "But there’s farther to go. Yes, it’s the year of transgender visibility, but it maintains trans invisibility – namely, genderqueer, people who aren’t binary, people who are a-gender."